I know that you have been waiting patiently to know what I consider the best books I read in 2017. I know that your fingers are itching to put these titles in your Amazon shopping cart and push “Checkout” so you can receive them in two days and begin to read like I have read. I know this because I know that somewhere deep in the bowels of your heart (so to speak), you want to be just like me.
Well, my friend, your patience has paid off.
Here now are the top five books I read in 2017. Notice I did not say books that were released in 2017. I can be a bit slow on the draw.
5. Vacation Guide To The Solar System: Science For The Savvy Space Traveler! by Olivia Koski and Jane Grcevich. Are you making vacation plans now for 2018? Why not include a visit to the moon or one of the planets in our solar system rather than boring old DisneyWorld? This is just a very fun book that teaches you a lot about the planets in the guise of a tour guide. You won’t look at the night sky the same again.
4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. This memoir of a self-professed “hillbilly” growing up in Middletown, Ohio hit a soft target with me. I was born in Middletown. My mom’s side of the family all came from Middletown. Vance’s people, however, were what we called “briars”–transplants from Kentucky. A briar may have moved physically from Kentucky, but not in the way they lived. Vance sheds light on those he grew up with in a very honest and merciful way.
I was reminded as I read how my aunts and uncles worked so hard to be sure others knew they were not briars, and yet they acted just as hillbilly as anyone from Kentucky. Vance’s tale made me look at how I have tried through education and employment and what I own to look different than those in an economically lower class. Just today, I went to get an oil change outside of my upper-middle class neighborhood in Tulsa. In the waiting room were people who could just as well have come from Middletown, Ohio–dressed shabbily, overweight, driving beater cars. Part of me–a not very good part of me–wanted to stand up and say, “I’m not from here. I’m not like you.” Oh, Father, have mercy on me.
Reading this book made me realize I have been thinking that everyone should change to be like me. Now I pray that they don’t.
3. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God by Timothy Keller. Ok, this is a bit of cheat. I didn’t technically “read” Keller’s book. I listened to it as I drove from Oklahoma to Ohio to celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary. But really now, read, listen … I learned from Keller’s book that I have a lot to learn about prayer. I have been walking with the Lord for going on 45 years now, and I feel like I am a beginner when it comes to prayer.
Keller gives some background of praying from different cultures and different religions before settling in on Christian prayer. He is, in typical Keller fashion, at once practical and philosophical in his subject.
I have determined that the two areas I want to focus on in my personal study in 2018 are poetry and prayer. I am a rank amateur at both. Keller’s book awakened a hunger in me for deeper intimacy with and greater awe of God. Read it, listen to it—but absorb this important book by a great teacher.
2. The Vatican Trilogy by Morris West. The three books that make up this set are The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963), The Clowns of God (1981), and Lazarus (1990). These books follow the lives of three successive popes and how their election and execution of their office affects the Church around the world. In the first book, the man selected to the papacy is a former actor from a Slavic country; in the second, the pope abdicates the throne of Peter; the third book features a pope who wants to make changes in the Church that anger conservative Catholics. Did you catch the dates these books were written? Do you see that West seems to have been prophetic?
The action of the plots in these stories are not as memorable as the interaction of the characters. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy these tales–but if you’re not, you just might find yourself becoming one.
And the best book I read this year is …
The World, The Flesh and Father Smith by Bruce Marshall. Good luck finding this. There are only a couple available on Amazon. It was written in 1945 and has been long out-of-print. Set in Scotland in the first half of the 20th century, Marshall follows the life of the fictional Father Thomas Edmund Smith, pastor of two parishes in small, working-class towns in forgotten areas of the British Empire from the beginning of the century until the early years of World War II. We see Father Smith perform the mundane duties of priest, hear him counsel his flock, listen to sermons by other priests as they rail against the encroaching culture, watch as church politics play out–all in a well-paced, personal, intimate way.
Do you remember the spell for “the refreshment of the spirit” Lucy encountered in the magician’s book? (You have read Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Chronicles of Narnia, haven’t you?) Lucy read a story that left her soul feeling clean and refreshed. This is how I felt when I reached the end of Marshall’s book. I said to myself, “This is what it means to be a Catholic.” I know I will re-read this book often, as often as my soul needs refreshing.
(After you finish this, look for another book by Marshall: Father Malachy’s Miracle. Oh. My. Goodness.)
Bonus! The best album from 2017.
Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens. Giddens is one of the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; she is an extremely talented musician and singer who is the ultimate definition of “soul music.” Freedom Highway will take you on a ride through the days of slavery, repression of civil rights, and ordinary, everyday struggles each of us must face, and do it in a way that does not load you with guilt but, strangely, with hope. Prime cut: Birmingham, Alabama. Get this, listen, weep, pray, enjoy.
The St. Paul Evangelization Society is an apostolate to U.S. Catholic bishops, aiding them in the cause of the Great Commission–to make disciples of all men and women. This web site is a big part of how we reach out to our Shepherds. I am looking for a few “reporters” and writers who can share thoughts and experiences of evangelism. Things that work, things that don’t work. If you think you would like to help, please email me at email@example.com. The pay? You will be richly rewarded in heaven, I’m sure! (Hey, this is a ministry after all.)
Now, get on Amazon and start reading so you can be like me.